Group says bird habitat near Millville Airport will be threat to fliers

MILLVILLE - The Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association believes there's no way a bird habitat and airport can peacefully coexist.

The association has written a letter to the Federal Aviation Association asking it to intervene in Millville's plan to establish 100 acres of grassland habitat near the airport property because it promotes unsafe flying conditions.

According to an FAA advisory circular, which was quoted in the letter, a distance of 5,000 feet of separation is recommended for hazardous wildlife attractants, such as the proposed grassland habitat, and airports.

"It's really a concern having a wildlife bird sanctuary on the approach to a runway," AOPA spokeswoman Kathleen Vasconcelos said. "There are documented cases, the FAA tracks them all, of birds causing accidents with aircraft."

As part of a settlement stemming from a 2005 lawsuit, in which the city was sued by three environmental groups for the sale of 700 acres to New Jersey Motorsports Park for the construction of Thunderbolt Raceway, Millville is required to designate 100 acres for grassland habitat.

Environmental groups said the raceway land provided a home to several species, including the grassland sparrow and other threatened species, and that the new locations, some of which are adjacent to the airport, are simply providing the same habitat that was taken away.

Despite this, representatives of the AOPA said any bird habitats, even those providing a home to small birds, are a danger.

Troy Ettel, director of conservation for the New Jersey Audubon Society, said the size of the bird is relevant to these discussions, and that the species of birds that occupy grasslands in southern New Jersey are too small to pose a risk factor.

This is why, he said, airports like the Atlantic City International Airport in Egg Harbor Township and the Lakehurst Air Force Base have established grassland habitats and haven't come across any issues.

"They need to worry about geese and gulls and big flocking birds, not these ones that don't cause any problems," Ettel said. "A grasshopper sparrow's never going to cause an accident."

The AOPA, which represents nearly 9,000 pilots in New Jersey, begs to differ. Their membership, Vasconcelos said, consists mostly of pilots with small planes, almost all of which fly with propellers, and that all types of birds, even small ones, pose a risk to fliers.

It's not enough that birds are kept off the immediate land that surrounds runways, she said, because planes taking off or on descent are still low enough that birds can cause problems like crashing into windshields, referred to as a strike hazard, and obscuring a pilot's sight.

"Regardless of the size, it's a safety concern and this is not the right location for this type of bird sanctuary," Vasconcelos said. "Any size bird is a hazard to aircraft. There have been documented cases of aircraft accidents, some leading to fatalities, that were caused by bird strikes."

Ettel and the Audubon Society maintain their position, however, and say that despite the truth, despite the fact that small species of birds aren't likely to cause an accident, there's a concerted effort to eliminate bird sanctuaries from land on or around airports.

Ettel said incorrect studies have been performed and say that small birds, like the upland sparrow, pose a strike hazard or a threat, because of their size, of being sucked up into an engine.

"Some of the conclusions that have been made are ridiculous," he said. "But the thing is, if you hire a consultant to write that (small birds pose a risk) they're going to pass that off as truth."

The AOPA is only working in the best interest of its membership, Vasconcelos said, and that interest now is providing safety for its pilots.

"Certainly, with any bird there's a danger," she said.